Driving to work a few days ago in Tallahassee, I passed not one, but two separate chain gangs picking up litter along the street. It was the first time in a long while that I had seen them.
It must have been a special day, because there they were, in their black-and-white striped Hamburglar outfits with reflective orange roadwork vests, picking up trash. Several of those temporary orange diamond signs warned drivers, "Inmates Working." Governor Charlie Crist earned his nickname "Chain Gang Charlie" this way. Here's a good recap, from the Chicago Tribune:
[Under Attorney General Charlie Crist, Florida] in recent years has resurrected the chain gang, built an additional 21 prisons and passed a law that requires prisoners to serve 85 percent of their sentences. In January, Gov. Jeb Bush called for the closing of state legal offices that represent inmates awaiting execution, a move that critics fear would speed the walk to death.
When Crist ran for attorney general in 2002, rivals called him unqualified and unethical. He was derided as a vacuous "Chain Gang Charlie" who advocated a return to roadside prison labor gangs, hitched free rides on corporate jets, flunked the Bar exam twice and practiced little law.
It got me to thinking, the armchair ethicist that I am. I might concede that people surrender certain rights when they commit crimes. (I'll ignore the possibility that these people are innocent, though it's a distinct possibility, as we know.) But the question is whether they surrender the right to a certain basic dignity.
We might seek a comparison with setting prisoners to work, say, making license plates. What makes that different? Well, here are some considerations. Prisoners are being held in private, they are not being made a spectacle of. They are contributing to the public good just the same, though I would argue in a more meaningful way by contributing government labor versus menial, bottom-rung tasks like picking up garbage. As well, singling out a handful of prisoners, as chain gangs do, adds a unique – and therefore unfairly apportioned – stigma to the experience of those few inmates, whereas making license plates was, as I understand, something a larger percentage of prisoners participated in.
There is something about being singled out, in public, to perform a menial and degrading task that all entails a singularly inhumane treatment of people that, while we might say are "bad people," are people nonetheless. Instead, the proposers and enforcers of such policies come off as degrading, barbarian and inexcusably insensitive.